The late U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously advocated a form of textualism, interpreting legal texts as reasonable readers at the time of the law's writing would've understood it. (This is, of course, distinguished from "Original Intent" - comparable to Authorial Intent in literary theory - and "Living Constitution" theorists).

Has this had any influence on literary theory or hermeneutics (the method of interpretation of religious texts)? Are there any literary theorists who agree with him?


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Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 and his first book on textualism, A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law, dates from 1997.

The idea that the interpretation of the Constitution should be based on "what reasonable persons living at the time of its adoption would have understood the ordinary meaning of the text to be" (see original meaning theory / textualism on Wikipedia) is reminiscent of Hans Robert Jauß's view from 1957 that literary criticism should try to reconstruct the horizon of expectation of contemporary readers (cf. „Versuch, diesen (...) Text vom Erwartungshorizont seines zeitgenössischen Publikums aus zu interpretieren“). Jauß's theory clearly predates Scalia's textualism.

However, there is an important difference between Scalia's and Jauß's views. For Scalia, textualism was a way of pushing his own conservative agenda by presenting it as the only correct reading of the constitution. Jauß, by contrast, recognised that there are multiple ways to try to understand a text. (In fact, this is implied by the title of the last book published during his lifetime, Wege des Verstehens (literally "ways of understanding").

Reception theory points out that readers who lived at the time when classical works of fiction were published will not rise from the dead to tell us how they interpreted those texts. Moreover, those readers would have been unable to envisage what we would learn about their lifetime that they were unaware of. By rejecting the notion that text can "live" in this way, Antonin Scalia takes a point of view that is alien to modern literary theory and criticism. I am not aware of him (or any other judges or jurists for that matter) having had any influence on literary theory.

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